Cape Town - Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus definitely did no favours to Western Province coach John Dobson’s chances of making it successive Currie Cup final victories.
According to the supersport.com website, the logistics of getting the players to England to start preparations for Saturday’s big Test match at Twickenham meant that the players who were going on tour, and those who were excluded, knew about it halfway through last week.
It meant that WP took the field for the final at Newlands with seven players who knew that they had to rush to the airport straight after the game to catch a flight to London, and as significantly perhaps, they were in the national squad regardless of how they played.
Some people might question how this could affect professional rugby players, but it does. There’s a long history of Currie Cup finals being impacted by the mood of Springbok players, and former Sharks coach John Plumtree in particular felt it on several occasions. In 2008 his team won the Currie Cup when it featured a number of motivated Boks who had done poorly in that year’s Tri-Nations, but a year later in 2009, after a successful Bok year, he had to deal with complacency. He might also agree now that he was wrong to select all his Boks back into the side for the 2011 final against the Lions after they’d returned from a failed World Cup campaign.
It would have been hard for the Boks, particularly those selected into the squad for the first time, not to have had one foot on the plane, and several of them played like that. That included at least one of the Sharks’ three Bok selections, Thomas du Toit, who was given a good going over in the scrums by WP loosehead Ali Vermaak. Vermaak wasn’t touring, he had a point to prove, just like a whole phalanx of Sharks players had a point to prove.
It’s hard to blame Erasmus for the situation that undermined the domestic final. The Twickenham game is an important one and it is now just a few days away. He couldn’t delay his departure for London any longer and of course the players had to know they were going before the final as they had to be on a 18:15 bus departure to the airport. That meant they couldn’t even take part in the prize-giving and was the reason the Sharks’ appointed captain for the season, Chiliboy Ralepelle, and not captain of the day, Louis Schreuder, joined coach Robert du Preez in attending the post-match press conference.
But what Erasmus most emphatically did do was amp up the Sharks’ motivation levels with some of his exclusions. Akker van der Merwe, the Sharks hooker, went from being an Angry Warthog to a Furious Warthog, and it wasn’t surprising given the slight of once again being overlooked for veteran Schalk Brits that he was inspired enough to win the man of the match award.
Ditto Jean-Luc du Preez. Now that he is fit again, Du Preez would have been expected by most commentators to be in the squad. He is a special player, and while the other Du Preez brothers, Robert and Dan, are really no more than good provincial players, Du Preez undeniably has the potential to be a world superstar.
How either of those two players was left out of the Bok squad only Erasmus really knows. Brits ahead of Van der Merwe makes sense to some people apparently on the basis that the young hookers need a guiding hand on tour. In other words Brits is travelling as an extra coach.
But then why not appoint him as a coach? It is not as if Erasmus has a particularly big management group by international standards. There isn’t the same degree of specialisation in the Bok group, for instance, that there is in the England management. Or the All Blacks for that matter.
Brits, who hasn’t played a game since June, travelling ahead of Van der Merwe makes a mockery of any contention from Erasmus that he picks on form. And let’s forget about Brits for a moment, for if we are going to discuss form, then we should compare Van der Merwe’s performance at the weekend with that of Bongi Mbonambi.
The Bok hooker, pencilled in at this point as the second hooker alongside Malcolm Marx, was one of the WP players who looked as though he was already at Cape Town International and not at Newlands when the final kicked off.
Had the WP lineout functioned as it had during the regular season, they would have won the Currie Cup. No question about that. Think about it - there was only five points in it at the end, and had just a few of the lineout throws that went awry from Mbonambi’s hand found their target, there would surely have been one try from the early lineout sets in good field positions.
It’s hard to blame one player for a defeat but Mbonambi and the misfiring Josh Stander were among the worst WP culprits on the day. By contrast Van der Merwe, the ignored hooker, effectively won the game for his team. Or perhaps to be more accurate, he and the Du Preez brothers won the game.
Jean-Luc was immense, as he usually is. He was playing against a WP team that featured one Bok loose-forward in Sikhumbuzo Notshe, who has played well when called on by the Boks this year. But while his selection made sense when Warren Whiteley was injured and Duane Vermeulen was unavailable, meaning that there were no No 8s, it doesn’t make so much sense now. Not if he is going to tour ahead of Du Preez.
Perhaps the Boks will do well on tour and these selection mixes will be forgotten or ignored, but it was hard to ignore them on Saturday, not when the players excluded were clearly so much better than those who were heading for the airport.
JD Schickerling, the young WP lock, certainly deserves his call-up, and that was always on the cards at some point given how highly Erasmus rates him. And rightly so. But while Sergeal Petersen was good in the Currie Cup, he was shown up when he played for the Boks in a non-international game against the Barbarians at Wembley in 2016, and with Gio Aplon now joining Cheslin Kolbe as a foreign based winger in the squad, it does seem there are a lot of small wings in the group.
Hopefully Sbu Nkosi will carry his good Currie Cup form into his return to international rugby, for the first choice players - Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi - certainly don’t lack for size. It is what happens if there are injuries that is a point of concern.
Damian Willemse, who in the last three weeks has played fullback, flyhalf and inside centre, is expected to start at fullback on Saturday as Willie le Roux is unavailable due to club commitments. The Twickenham game is the one match on tour that falls outside of the international window.